Christopher Nolan’s war movie is predictably epic, but thankfully eschews the glorification and patriotism that often makes this genre so uncomfortable. Of course, the alternative is equally as difficult to watch – just in a completely different way.
I’m going to be honest from the get-go. I went to see this movie solely because Harry Styles was in it, and I fully expected to hate it.
There. I’ve said it.
My lack of interest in the movie was mostly due to its subject matter. I’ll be brief, but I find a lot of war movies unpleasant because they seem to morally whitewash immensely complicated events into fodder for hero worship and vicarious victories. It seems like they’re designed to allow audiences in on all of the flag-waving with none of the emotional trauma. It’s not that they don’t show that war is hell; many do. American Sniper is a good example of this. It may depict how difficult it is to adjust back to civilian life after a horrific experience, but at its core, it still expects us to admire the main character’s kill count – and Chris Kane was a real person. Those kills were real kills. Whether you believe war is necessary or not, parading that statistic for entertainment purposes seems frivolous at best.
Given our current political climate, I expected Dunkirk to do the same. It doesn’t.
It doesn’t go so far as to humanise the German side, which would perhaps be more controversial than a blockbuster is permitted to be. It just declines to show them. Unless I’m mistaken, the only on-screen glimpse of the opposing side is a couple of Luftwaffe planes from a distance. No names, no faces. However, it is a hell of a lot more honest than it could have been. Dunkirk portrays both fearless soldiers and frightened ones. It is upfront about how ugly patriotism can be, prioritising one country’s lives over another – at both the top and the bottom of the hierarchy. More than anything, the whole thing feels futile and claustrophobic.
That’s not an easy task when your key location is a wide open space.
The movie has been out for a while now, so I’m sure you’ll already know that it runs on three different timelines at once: a week at the beach, a day on a civilian boat crossing the channel, and an hour with an RAF pilot. The device is disorienting at times, but it’s good for pacing – and that feeling of disorientation works in the film’s favour. Among other things, that’s what makes it feel like a disaster movie in a WW2 uniform. It escalates repeatedly and in short bursts instead of building like a ‘normal’ movie. It helps to sustain the tension; you know that something bad will happen in due course, but never exactly what or when.
Most of the cast is excellent. Fionn Whitehead is the film’s main emotional anchor, and does a great job of communicating his boyish instinct to survive – but not at any cost – with a very limited number of lines. Cillian Murphy is vulnerable and convincing as a rescued soldier who’s forced to return to the nightmare he thought he’d left behind. Kenneth Branagh is on typical top form as the ranking officer on the beach, keeping his dread largely beneath a professional and calm veneer. As for Harry Styles? Well, I’m a biased superfan – but he carried himself well for a first-timer, in my opinion. His character is completely against type, and I admire that. It’s a difficult role for a debut, and a brave one.
It’s not the kind of movie I’d rush back to watch again. It’s dark and upsetting, and I didn’t walk out of it feeling good despite the uptick in its tone at the end. Still, I’m really glad I’m enough of a fanboy to see it for Harry’s sake. It’s a thoughtful and nuanced history piece that I would almost certainly have given a miss.